I’ve never thought of myself as a particularly political person. I love the idea of Jimmy Stewart as a small-town 1930s business owner getting into his old-timey jalopy and traveling to Washington to do some good. (I haven’t seen Mr. Smith Goes to Washington in a couple decades: is any of that accurate?) So when I found out I would be traveling from my quaint, tiny little hamlet (New York City) to attend AFSP’s annual Advocacy Forum in Washington, D.C., I didn’t know what to expect.
I knew that I would be joining advocates from all 50 states in taking meetings “on the Hill” to talk about public policy priorities such as mental health reform legislation; an integrated national suicide prevention effort; full funding of the National Violent Death Reporting System (which collects information vital to suicide research), and increased access to mental health services for our veterans.
What I didn’t know, embarrassingly, is: how steep is The Hill? Should I bring a hat? What’s the difference between the House of Representatives and the Senate? Would we be talking with senators? Congress-people? Legislators? I had no understanding of the terminology. I decided that to play it safe I would just refer to them all as “politics people.” (Luckily, it didn’t come up.)
On the train ride down, I thought about whether I was really the right person to be going. I and the rest of the field advocates would be going in small groups and grabbing just a few minutes of these elected representatives’ time, and hopefully convincing them to support much-needed mental health and suicide prevention efforts. I could certainly speak from a personal standpoint: I had lost my mother to suicide, and it had been clear to me since childhood, contending with her personality disorder, that this was very much a health issue.
But did I know enough about the political process to successfully persuade these “politics people” to support the bills (legislation? amendments?) currently on the table? I did some serious soul searching as I nibbled at the cherry cheese croissant I’d picked up at Au Bon Pain, which is my standard Amtrak food selection.
To my great relief, AFSP’s Washington policy office prepared us well. We had a day of panels on everything from what to expect on the Hill and talking points; to treating veteran suicide as a national priority; to the need for Congress to increase funds for suicide prevention research; to an overview of why advocacy plays a central role in AFSP’s mission. Bob Cusack, Editor in Chief of The Hill newspaper, fielded questions from John Madigan, AFSP’s Vice President of Public Policy, as the audience fiddled with their boxed lunches. (They were in bags, actually, and included what I thought was a really good cookie.) Perhaps most encouragingly, Senators Bill Cassidy (a Republican from Louisiana) and Chris Murphy (a Democrat from Connecticut) sat side-by-side, in agreement about the importance of supporting mental health initiatives. It truly is a bipartisan issue, I realized, listening to them.
Still, though, nothing about how steep The Hill was, or whether I would need sunblock. (My head is, shall we say, unencumbered by a preponderance of hair.)
Just as I’ve felt when attending my first Survivor Day event, or one of our Out of the Darkness Walks, perhaps the most powerful element was the opportunity to be around so many other people who have been touched by suicide loss. You can read all the statistics you want, but there is no substitute for physically being around so many others who have unfortunately shared this experience. The Advocacy Forum provided its own special angle: these were people who had taken it upon themselves to travel to our nation’s capital, and (politely) demand action. Would I have done so, were I not a staff member in our national office? I wasn’t sure. But I certainly realized that it would have been the right choice. (You actually don’t even have to go to Washington to be an advocate.)
The day of, I woke up, grabbed my packet of materials and snazzy turquoise Advocacy Forum tote bag, and headed off to this Hill I had been hearing so much about. There was a slight incline, but it wasn’t so much of a hill. Just a nice walk alongside a bunch of other people intent on making a difference.
I tagged along with some good folks from one of our California chapters for two meetings in The House of Representatives, and one in The Senate. One meeting was at a little table in an outer office for about 20 minutes or so. One we had to literally take in the hallway, since several other things were simultaneously going on inside the Congressperson’s office. The Senate meeting lasted longer, with a few more people involved. Each person we met with had his or her own specific interests within the topic, and a different avenue of questions to drill us on. I was glad to go along with people who had done it before, and knew better than I the ins and outs of the bills being proposed. We all briefly shared our personal connection to the topic, and then got down to business.
What I realized, though, was this: it didn’t matter how well versed I was in the inner-workings of Washington. Our policy team gave us all the background we needed. What mattered was that we showed up. We put our faces in front of our representatives, and let them know: change is necessary when it comes to how our country thinks of mental health.
The wonderful thing? Person after person told me how different it feels on The Hill now, as opposed to even just a few years ago. There is a newfound openness to mental health as a topic: a widespread feeling that it needs to be addressed. The people in Congress know that it’s time. Change might not come as fast as we’d like it to…there may be frustrating diplomatic stumbling blocks along the way…but what is fast becoming clear is that it will happen.
I was thrilled to be a small part of that.
Plus, I know the word “bicameral” now.
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